The Corner

Culture

Books Read and Unread

In Dresden, Germany, March 23, 2020 (Matthias Rietschel / Reuters)

On the homepage today, you will find a piece called “Staggering Cornucopias: On books to read and music to listen to — or not.” I’d like to publish a little mail, but first, a little background: Part of my discussion deals with great novels, and not just any great novels: ones that I have picked up — more than once — and failed to persevere in. These include Bleak House, Middlemarch, and The Magic Mountain.

Someday, someday. (Or not.)

National Review’s Fred Schwarz writes,

I like Middlemarch a lot, but I have the same reaction to it that Samuel Johnson had to Paradise Lost — “No man has ever wished it longer.” The first time I read it, I took about half a year because it wasn’t boring enough to put down but wasn’t interesting enough to plow straight through.

I love that sentence, by the way.

The second time was easier because it took much less effort to keep track of the characters and plot developments.

But I’m basically an “if it doesn’t have an English country house, it isn’t a novel” type; Vanity Fair is my all-time favorite.

That is good to know, and a helluva commendation.

Further from Fred:

When I start a novel, I usually consider it a point of pride to finish it; the only exception I can remember is Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence, which (I found out years after buying it) has not only a deceptive title but a reputation for dullness (George Orwell remarked on both of these). But there are plenty of books that I have finished and disliked, including The Moonstone, by Willkie Collins (supposedly the first detective novel, except the detective isn’t particularly clever and the solution is just plain absurd), and Moby-Dick (the non-fiction chapters about the natural history of the whale, the development of the whaling industry, and so on are fascinating, but I found the fictional part thoroughly unengaging).

Them’s fightin’ words — like most words concerning arts and letters (and sports and other subjects).

Another letter, from another reader — who begins, “Bleak House is the only Dickens novel I ever liked.” This is so interesting. I have other letters that say, “I love Dickens — every one of them — except Bleak House.” Anyway, our letter-writer continues,

On Middlemarch, I wish you could find your way into and through it for the joy of it! I never got past the middle (the French part) of The Magic Mountain. Conrad I find astounding but not, somehow, likable. When I was 25, I thought The Red and the Black was the greatest novel ever written. At 55, I read it again and . . . hated it. I actually thought it was plain bad.

Have you ever tried the novels of Barbara Pym? I’m an evangelist of Pym. Some Tame Gazelle is a marvelous one to start with.

In a follow-up, our writer says,

I feel compelled to tell you of another reading turnaround: I tried to read Moby-Dick when young and failed. As soon as Ishmael and Queequeg got on the ship, I was done. Last year I decided to try again, and I’m sure reading it was one of the greatest experiences of my life — not just reading experiences, but any.

And a mountain I have yet to climb, or even approach — Proust.

Three comments:

(1) As the letter illustrates, it pays — or sometimes pays — not to give up on something. This goes for literature, music, and other fields we could think of.

(2) I was talking to a colleague a month or two ago who had just read Moby-Dick for the fourth time. He finds new and marvelous things in it on each reading. He has a portrait of Melville on his office wall (which is how our discussion began).

(3) When it comes to Proust, I think of Mike Potemra, my late friend and colleague. He had read more than almost anyone I knew. Twenty-five or thirty years ago — before we started working at NR — he gave me a list of his 100 all-time books, and a list of his 100 all-time movies. (He had also seen everything.) At the top of the book list was Proust.

Where are those lists, and why don’t I publish them? He gave them to me on paper. (We did not do much Internet in those days.) I’m not sure I can lay my hands on them.

At the top of the movie list, incidentally, was The Conversation, the Francis Ford Coppola film of 1974. I watched it — rented it — and did not understand it. Mike remarked to me, “It’s a meditation on privacy.” (He was very big on privacy.)

Friends, one more letter, at least for now:

Just read your piece on books to read, etc. In fairness, I’ve read none of the books mentioned, though I’ve tried Jane Austen a number of times and crashed and burned before finishing any of her books.

As an octogenarian, I have been unable to overcome a passion for reading even with all of the other possible ways to waste time these days. I confess that I have given up “books” but own and use two Kindle readers so that I can keep at least two books going at the same time. I do this so that I can read “serious” literature/history/economics/etc. on one and popcorn novels on the other. At my age, I still read at least four books a week this way. When I read Hayek or a Chernow history, it shrinks that number.

All that having been said, I have a recommendation if you haven’t read it. My number-one book of all time is the novel A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin. Of course, anything by Helprin is a treat simply to read the English language when properly used, but this one is my absolute favorite.

In the early ’90s — shortly after the book was published — a singer friend of mine remarked, “I believe it may be the greatest novel of the past 50 years.” A potent, bracing statement, and it was my pleasure to share it with the author some years later.

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